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Off the Beaten Path: Isla Holbox

RealClearLife's adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps explores this charming, serene getaway.

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In this new series, Off the Beaten Path, A Modern Nomad’s Guide to a World Less Traveled, I bring you alternatives to some of the world’s most popular, most instagrammed and most crowded destinations. Places that haven’t quite “made it” yet. It’s not to say that popular spots aren’t worth the hype, but if you’re anything like me, you might appreciate a tip of the hat to global destinations where you can still find a bit of tranquility along with some magnificence.

When I first visited Tulum 15 years ago the Riviera Maya was just being developed with a myriad of all inclusive hotels and luxury resorts. Huge swaths of the jungle were being cut away to accommodate future complexes designed for every whim of a heat seeking tourists heart, from ice luges dripping with tequila to stand up paddle board lessons and mariachi band renditions of Brown Eyed Girl. The local Mayan ruins housed one homeless dog asleep in the sun and the stunning beaches were void of yoga retreats and chic habitats of any sort. That’s all changed.

These days Tulum’s boho beach vibe attracts everyone from celebrities frolicking in the new $12,000 per night penthouse, complete with private bartender, to photographers shooting the latest swimwear campaign and hipsters escaping LA for a grounding meditation on a white sand beach…with drink service. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Absolutely nothing. But for those of us who like our beaches more barefoot than barefoot bar, there’s another spot that has been hash tagged far fewer times, Isla Holbox (pronounced hol-BOSH). At time of penning #Tulum had over 2 million hashtags, with #IslaHolbox at a measly 51K. I like me some measly numbers when it comes to my destinations.

Isla Holbox
Zomay Beach Bar at sunset (Kinga Philipps)

As recently as a decade ago, this tropical paradise was as off the radar as it is off the beaten path. The first time I heard of Isla Holbox was five years ago, en route to nearby Isla Mujeres. As our plane descended into Cancun, I glimpsed the long stretch of pristine beach framed by jungle and tropical water. A quick search of the map told me what it was, and thus Holbox went on my bucket list.

To get to Hotbox, you fly into Cancun, that mecca of all things associated with Jersey Shore spring break. Part of the island’s hidden gem charm comes from the fact that the road leading there has only been paved for a few years, it’s seeming inaccessibility preserving it like a little time capsule just slightly beyond the reaches of holiday makers schedules. Now the mere two hour drive is easy and can be arranged in advance with a shuttle service, a rental car or, if you detest driving, a small plane. The road options will take you to Chiquila, from where you hop a 15 minute ferry to the island across the lagoon. If your adventure flag is at full mast and you don’t mind a little haggle, local fishermen will take you over as well.

Isla Holbox
Best way to see the island is by bike. On way to Isla De La Passion (Kinga Philipps)

And then you arrive.The streets are all sand, transportation options are golf carts or bikes, and cash is king. Seriously, don’t run out, it’s a pain in the ass. The island has one ATM and it’s often on its own vacation.

The island is surrounded by milky water the color of pale jade and forms part of a protected native reserve called Yum Balam, which is Mayan for Lord Jaguar, and a marvelous name for a pet kitten. The area contains rich jungle habitat, wetlands and both lagoon and coastal mangrove. The varied biodiversity is one of the highlights making this area worth a visit.

History packs its own punch in the region as well. Back in the 18th century, Holbox was a haven for pirates looking for fresh water with legends of buried treasure still in circulation…probably after some tequila. The other thing circulating heavily on Holbox are mosquitos. The only time in my life I’ve been chased by a swarm.

Electricity came in 1987 and so did the ex-pats, particularly from Italy and Argentina. Several of the hotels have international ownership which adds to the eclectic favor. The choice pick on the island is Casa Las Tortugas, charming in every sense of the word. A little internet research will yield a variety of accommodation options to suit every budget and style.

Isla Holbox
Sandbar at the end of Calle Paseo Kuka (Kinga Philipps)

The prettiest beaches are on the Northeast end of town where, with the right tide, a sandbar emerges and is the perfect early morning viewing spot for the island’s famed flocks of flamingos. Even if you don’t spot the characteristic single-legged silhouettes, pink feathers scattered in the sand give away their presence. For sunset, that same sandbar is top notch and the premier location if you want a side of solitude with your suns daily departure. The other, more social, sunset option is at the little bar on the beach in front of Hotel Zomay. It’s the gathering spot for both locals and tourists and a good place to float with a cocktail in hand while watching the burning orb melt into the sea. Hotel Zomay is a charming series of bungalows scattered in a palm grove on the beach and housing multiple raccoons who dreamily wait out siesta hours with paws dangling from palm fronds. If the resident raccoons aren’t enough, across the road from Zomay is Alma Verde, an animal shelter that takes in and rehabs local critters on the mend.

Wandering the miles and miles of beaches and sandbars for sunrise and sunset is highly recommended. The island is very safe with little crime, so outside of the standard logical precautions there is little more than a mosquito onslaught to worry about.

Isla Holbox
Lounging on the sandbar at sunset (Kinga Philipps)

The town itself is fairly bustling with shops, restaurants, farmers markets, tour operators and the main square where people gather in the relative cool of the evenings to play bingo and table football. Food on the island is not inexpensive. Comparable to LA or NY meal prices in fact. For a nice spread head to Viva Zapata to sample fresh seafood and good cocktails. Live music offerings and a beautiful courtyard make this the choice spot for a celebratory night out or just a good meal. The fact that they accept plastic payment certainly adds to the appeal. The applauded seafood platter is beautifully presented and is as representative of the regions aquatic characters as any aquarium. Ask for the fish to be cooked on the lighter side as ours was tasty, if a tad overcooked. For a lower key, and lower priced, option Tacos Cueto and a variety of street side taco stands offer good, cheaper eats. The mid town farmers market, Mercadito Pool-box, is a sound spot to procure fresh fruit and local delicacies for a fraction of the cost. La Isla del Colibri, with its charming colorful interior, stands out as the premier breakfast haunt for its ample portions and variety of fresh fruit smoothies that would give any LA juice bar a run for its money. After sampling the offerings at most of the recommended eateries, our favorite dinner spot became Las Panchas, where we were repeat visitors during our stay for tacos, fresh ceviche and guacamole. From a conservation perspective, It’s always worth asking what’s in your ceviche and making sure the ingredients are reef responsible. Lobsters, sharks and other fish that are taken out of season to satiate the tourist demand for seafood are on the decline in the area.

Isla Holbox
Public hammocks on Holbox (Kinga Philipps)

Beach lounging can definitely be considered an activity on Holbox and the colorful postcard perfect hammocks make a good point that it’s a descent way to whittle away the hours. At higher tide your bum rests nicely in the ocean as you relax and ponder how to never leave this rather extraordinary slice of paradise. Yet, for all the inviting relaxation options Holbox is visited by the more adventurous types for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is colossal, covered in spots and looks like a cartoon character brought to life by Pixar. Whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea, gather in these waters each summer to feed on fish eggs and plankton. Their gatherings have become somewhat of a phenomenon and absolutely worth a day on the water. The options offered by outfitters are “green water” or “blue water.” Go blue. Your sit bone might complain on the three hour each way boat ride but the payoff is seeing these magnificent creatures in crystal clear water rather than the beautiful but murky green that surrounds the island. We were lucky enough to be the only boat out on our adventure and swam with 15 individual sharks over a two hour window. Just four girls and a lot of big fish. Forever in my mind is waving to my sister over the dappled dorsal fin of a fairytale-esque behemoth gracefully gliding between us. The experience was so extraordinary that I ingested enough salt water to promptly expelled my lunch, to the chagrin of our boat hands who couldn’t understand why I was smiling while projectile vomiting pink soda. On the way back the boat stops at lagoon inlets and feeds you the freshest ceviche you could hope for. That I kept down. They let you roam the tidal sand bars looking for shells, fish skirting through she shallows and spot bird life. Holbox outfitters don’t have a great reputation among the conservation community for being eco friendly, probably for no more reason than they are so new to the game, so making a good selection is important. We went with Willy’s Tours and couldn’t have been happier with the choice. Pink soda be damned.

Isla Holbox
Street art at Mercadito Pool-box (Kinga Philipps)

Outside of whale sharks there is plenty on the island to keep you entertained. If you’re there during the November to August window when the winds are blowing, Holbox offers some great opportunity for kiteboarding. It’s about as perfect a spot as there could be to learn with shallow waters, soft sandy bottom and wide long beaches to fly on.

Kayaking the mangroves in search of the island flamingos, ubiquitous horseshoe crabs, rays, dolphins and sea turtles isn’t a lousy way to spend the day either. Much more peaceful and greatly preferred over the three island tour offered on every street corner. The tour could be a nice way to spend a few hours outside of the fact that all the various operators show up to the small islands simultaneously (even if they say they go in off hours…apparently there are no off hours). One stop is a truly unique fresh water spring rumored to be where pirates visited for fresh water. Unfortunately, the amount of people in the spring gave it more of a life jacket soup appearance than hidden island Shangri-La. Pirates didn’t wear life jackets or travel with coolers, I’m sure of this.

Moments likes this are when you get a glimpse of what Holbox will become in a few years time, as the steady influx of visitors grows. It’s pristine coves, inlets and islands aren’t suited to mass numbers.

One of the most bewitching excursions on the island is the bioluminescence spectacle at Punta Coco. On moonless nights, bikers and golf carts descend on this stretch of beach and eager attendees wade into the water to see one of natures finer light shows. Bioluminescent phytoplankton creates the hallucinatory effect of glowing stars twinkling underwater when disturbed. We found that even more marvelous than pouncing around in the water was wading through the patches of sea grass. Fish and horseshoe crabs dart away leaving tracers of glow resembling Avatar’s Tree of Souls.

The island is home to other exotic wildlife as well. Tapir, crocodiles, five species of wildcat, including pumas and jaguars, and rare giant otters the size of large dogs. All incredibly illusive so if you spot one grab the next available lottery ticket cause baby, you’re on a lucky streak.

Isla Holbox
Holbox street art from Mexico’s first International Public Art Festival (Kinga Philipps)

Another interesting and less expected bonus of Isla Holbox is the art scene. Dubbed the “secret graffiti island,” Holbox hosted Mexico’s first International Public Art Festival in 2014 leaving an additional splash of color on an already kaleidoscope-like location. Beautiful murals adorn everything from buildings to crumbling beach rubble. Much of the art features local life depicting fishermen and ocean scenes reminding visitors that the heart and soul of this pace comes from the water that surrounds it.

Like everything of value, charm and serenity, a steady influx of suitors threatens the peaceful atmosphere even as I write this. A virgin tourist spot it is not anymore, but it still has the breathing room that other Caribbean destinations have lost. My suggestion is that you pack the mosquito repellent along with a desire for unique experiences and leave your tracks in the Holbox sand sooner rather than later.

Isla Holbox
Enjoying sunset on Isla Holbox just before a swarm of mosquitos chased us back to our beach bungalows (Kinga Philipps)